Prettybelle: The Flop That Could Have Been a Hit…Possibly?
Bob Merrill’s collaboration with Jule Styne on the musical Funny Girl was a successful one that led to an even greater success when it was turned into a film. How exciting it was, then, for fans of Broadway to receive the news that the duo that gave us “People”, “I’m the Greatest Star”, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance” would be joining forces again, this time to create a musical that would star Angela Lansbury. The subject for their project was the 1970 novel Prettybelle: A Lively Tale of Rape and Resurrection by Jean Arnold (Merrill adapted the book for the stage). For the stage, the title was shortened simply to Prettybelle, and it would prove to be one of the most beloved flops of all time, closing out of town before it ever hit a Broadway stage.
Prettybelle Sweet is an eccentric millionaire who is writing her memoirs from the insane asylum where she currently resides. In flashback, she recounts how she is haunted by the ghost of her deceased cheating husband Leroy, a bigoted sheriff that she was glad to see die. She attempts to make amends for her late-husband’s transgressions by writing large checks to the NAACP and offering to have sex with every Mexican and African American man she encounters. She falls in love with and marries a liberal lawyer Mason Miller, raising the ire of the Ku Klux Klan who destroy her house. In the end Mason betrays her and leaves, sending Prettybelle over the edge, sending her to the asylum where we first found her.
Yes, it all sounds a bit unfocused and convoluted. That was generally how audiences felt as well. Prettybelle had been scheduled to open at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre on March 15, 1971, but instead it played its final performance in Boston on March 6th, never making it to New York. There was no original cast recording of Prettybelle and it looked like it was destined to fade into obscurity. Over ten years later, in 1982, members of the original cast were reassembled by record producers Bruce Yeko, Robert Sher and Milton Rosenstock to record the musical. Since there had never been a definitive, final song list for Prettybelle, the album was a collage of several numbers, the ones that were utilized in the final performance and some that had been cut along the way. Though that album has yet to inspire a revival of Prettybelle, it has kept the property alive in the hearts of musical theatre enthusiasts and flop connoisseurs. Listening to it, it is easy to hear how the project revealed a different side to Bob Merrill: one that we hadn’t quite encountered yet: biting cynicism, a darker wit, and an astute understanding of the quixotic.